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The New Nordic Cuisine

A resurgence of interest in traditional Scandinavian fare has both foodies and nutritionists excited.

Nordic food has been making something of a comeback in recent years. Following research by scientists at the University of Copenhagen that found traditional Scandinavian cuisine to be every bit as healthy as its Mediterranean counterpart, there has been a surge of interest in the scientific and gastronomic communities.

One of the driving forces behind the rising popularity of Nordic cuisine is the success of a small restaurant on the Christianshavn waterfront. Noma – a contraction of Nordic Mad (‘mad’ is food in Danish). The exclusive Michelin-starred restaurant was founded by Claus Meyer in partnership with head chef Rene Redzepi with the intention of reinventing Nordic cuisine – something he is now widely credited as having done.

The menu is populated with items such as musk ox and wild berries, and sauces are made with beer rather than wine. It’s all very experimental and cutting edge but the success of Noma has enabled other restaurants to step forward and offer local dishes that would once have been shunned as distastefully exotic by conservative diners.

In 2005 the Nordic Council of Ministers initiated the New Nordic Food manifesto as a way of boosting the production and consumption of traditional food products. Tired of the low quality and tasteless yet clinically perfect food that had come to pass for Danish food the chef Claus Meyer sought answers by studying the history of agricultural production. He learned that the international success of Danish butter and pork had a disastrous effect on local cuisines as it muscled out most other areas of production and forced small unproductive farms to shut.

A century of subsidised agro-business had left a bleached landscape of homogeneity where once there had been a rich diversity of local foods, recipes and traditions. A new strain of nutritional puritanism crept in, expounded by an ascetic medical profession and encouraged from the church pulpit. Food was no longer about taste and bonhomie but should be seen in terms of the nutritional value it imparted, based on the prevailing scientific orthodoxies of the day. Pork products boomed and rarely encountered items such as hot dogs, liver pate and meatballs supplanted almost everything else in the national culinary psyche.

A pork production cooperative set up in 1890 ensured that by 1970 there were three pigs for every human in Denmark. That figure has now reached five pigs per person – 25 million animals. Practically the only recognisably Danish foodstuffs that survived this process were those that could be eaten in a hurry, such as rye bread sandwiches with pickled herring. The new mantra was that plain ‘unpretentious’ food was good. In short, the fun was taken out of eating.

Seeking redress to this imbalance, Meyer and others looked long and hard at the natural Nordic environment, studied old recipes and talked with those old enough to remember when food wasn’t shrink wrapped and flown in from the other side of the world. They wondered why such a large relatively unspoiled area, blessed with rich soil; a temperate climate and wild seas could not provide more. What they came up with can now be found on the menus of many a city restaurant. Slow-growing Limfjord oysters, wild reindeer, Greenland flounder, moorland grouse, crayfish from Sweden’s Gulf of Bothnia and lumpfish caviar, to name but a few. More than 50 types of berries, many of which had remained regional specialities, emerged from the forests of Scandinavia and entered the lexicon of the New Nordic Cuisine. Who, before, could claim to have tasted cloudberries, Arctic brambles and broke berries?

But despite the growing availability of these newly-discovered Nordic foodstuffs they still only exist, for the most part, on the menus of restaurants for the well-heeled. Copenhagen-based chef Trina Hahnemann, whose book The Scandinavian Cookbook is an international bestseller, wants to get people cooking Nordic style in their own homes. An occasional TV chef, Hahnemann is a self-appointed ‘ambassador’ for Nordic food in the wider world. Originally she was inspired to write about it because all the recipe books she could find featured fusty-looking people wearing national costume: clearly it was time to drag Nordic cuisine into the 21st century.

‘Nordic food is an everyday cuisine that can inspire people in the northern hemisphere to eat both locally and seasonally. It’s about tradition and eating from your “back yard” in a new and modern context. But it’s also about great food, cooked in the kitchen and eaten together at the table,’ Hahnemann says.

And it’s not just the gastronomy crowd getting excited by Nordic food. Scientists think it may be every bit as healthy as a Mediterranean diet. Just as in other countries with high levels of processed food, Scandinavian countries suffer from all the chronic ailments of the modern age. High levels of diabetes, coronary disease and obesity have all been pinned on diets high in saturated fat and processed sugar. But there is a growing body of evidence to suggest traditional Nordic food could go some way towards halting these problems.

Some berries, for example, have been found to contain high levels of Omega 3 fatty acids, and any diet rich in oily fish is thought to bring down harmful cholesterol levels. There is even evidence to suggest that cold-pressed rapeseed oil is as healthy as virgin olive oil.

The Nordic diet seems to be emerging as a substitute for the sun-ripened Mediterranean one. With its blend of fish, root vegetables, grainy bread, nuts and wild game, it is as tasty as it is exciting.

As Noma founder Claus Meyer puts it: ‘This new kitchen ideology is not at declaration of war against Thai food, Mexican mole or sushi. It is not at crusade against pizza. We don’t feel any affinity with nationalistic ideas. We just think that food from our region deserves to have a voice in the choir of the world’s other great cuisines.’

Jason Heppenstall